Compartment syndrome is a medical emergency if it happens after an injury. Delay in prompt surgical treatment can lead to muscle death and even amputation. That is why medical malpractice is a serious possibility in any permanent injury related to compartment syndrome.
Compartments are groupings of muscles, nerves, and blood vessels in your arms and legs. Each “compartment” is covered with a tough membrane called a fascia. The role of the fascia is to keep the muscles, nerves and blood vessels inside that compartment in place, and, therefore, the fascia does not stretch easily.
When you suffer a serious injury, such as in an automobile accident or even after a heavy football “hit,” swelling or bleeding in the muscles can build pressure inside a compartment to dangerous levels. If the pressure isn’t relieved with surgery, the blood supply to the muscles in that compartment gets choked off, and tissue death and permanent disability can occur.
The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons says acute compartment syndrome can happen with:
- A fracture.
- A badly bruised muscle. Such as when a football player gets hit in the leg with another player’s helmet, or a motorcycle falls on the leg of the rider.
- Reestablished blood flow after blocked circulation. This may occur after a surgeon repairs a damaged blood vessel that has been blocked for several hours.
- Crush injuries.
- Anabolic steroid use. Taking steroids can contribute to compartment syndrome.
- Constricting bandages. Casts and tight bandages can cause compartment syndrome.
The main symptom of compartment syndrome is intense pain or tightness in the muscle. If there is numbness and especially if there is paralysis, permanent damage may have already occurred. Compartment syndrome can occur in any of the compartments in the arms or legs but happens most often in the calf. Here is a drawing of the calf anatomy that shows the four compartments in the lower leg.
Treatment: Acute compartment syndrome is a surgical emergency. There is no effective nonsurgical treatment. The surgeon must cut open the skin and fascia covering the affected compartment. This relieves the pressure inside that compartment.
There is also a non-serious form of compartment syndrome called exertional or chronic compartment syndrome. It causes pain or cramping during exercise. This pain subsides when activity stops. It most often occurs in the leg.
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